Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Stewart Brand: Underpopulation hurts the environment

posted by Rod Dreher

A Chicago area reader passes along a Boston Globe Ideas section Q&A in which Stewart Brand, pioneering environmentalist and author of “The Whole Earth Catalog,” sounds the alarm about the dangers of underpopulation. Excerpt:

IDEAS: So as people start to have fewer kids and those kids have fewer kids, you’re expecting that there might be a rapid decline and that this could actually lead to a crisis at some point.
BRAND: Everybody in the world was scared of Japan economically 20 years ago. And one of the reasons they were so powerful was that they were getting the demographic bonus, which is when you start having fewer kids, the parents — or not parents after all — are a lot freer to be productive economically. So you have a youngish generation which is working like hell and not being distracted taking care of kids. And so, you get a boom….But then you pay for it later because the next generation of hard-working kids isn’t there. And as the hard-working generation, that cohort, gets older, they start to move from being productive to being dependent, and there’s not too many people for them to be dependent on, in the younger generation. And then you start to get a nation that looks like Florida.
And that’s why I wind up being mildly pro-natal as an environmentalist, because I think when an economy’s really cracked, you get in a situation where taking care of the environment — the natural infrastructure, as I call it — tends to go down the old priority list. And it sometimes falls right off it.



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Lindsey Abelard

posted March 31, 2010 at 12:21 pm


Stewart Brand did help start the L-5 Society. He also promotes nuclear power and DIY biology. He thinks (as do I) that biotechnology and synthetic biology will have the same effects on society over the next 40 years that semiconductors and computers have had over the last 40 years. He promotes the development of a biohacking culture.
See, I like Stewart Brand because he thinks a lot like me. He does not like established institutions because they are all bureaucracies and, therefor, incapable of productive accomplishment. It is the nature of bureaucracy to promote its own interest and growth above all other consideration. It is also the nature of bureaucracy to foster group think that curtails anyone thinking out of the box and to, subsequently discourage innovation. Innovation is threatening to bureaucracy because it flattens the hierarchical pyramid and destroys all of the little empires that everyone is trying to create.
Stewart Brand intuitively understands this facet of human nature. Unfortunately, both the liberal-left and the conservatives completely forget or are willfully ignorant of this aspect of human nature. This is the reason why both the liberal-left as well as the conservatives are just plain wrong.



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Peter

posted March 31, 2010 at 12:24 pm


Good thing the earth isn’t anywhere close to being underpopulated.



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John E - Agn Stoic

posted March 31, 2010 at 1:04 pm


The headline Rod chose does not accurately reflect what Mr. Brand is saying. A more accurate headline would be “Stewart Brand: Skewed age population demographics hurts the environment.”



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Cecelia

posted March 31, 2010 at 1:17 pm


echo John E’s comments – calling himself “mildly pro natal” hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of having lots of people on the planet
And at what point does he think we would be “underpopulated”?



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Artie

posted March 31, 2010 at 1:58 pm


Stewart Brand is part of the techno-utopian libertarian bunch including Kevin Kelly that went on from Whole Earth Catalog to found Wired magazine. For this bunch, growth is the most important thing – be it population, the size of the internet, the markets, whatever, the bigger the better. He’s actually become a sort of pro-corporation, anti-environmentalist.



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TTT

posted March 31, 2010 at 2:09 pm


More from Brand: It may well be that dealing with a lot of the issues we’ll be facing, you’ll want young people to do it. And so you’ll need to be pro-natal enough to have some.
That’s not even a stance. Even Zero Population Growth is “pro-natal enough to want some young people around.” They just don’t want net growth. Who does Brown really think he is contrasting himself with?
It makes sense to be concerned about plummeting population levels after a Hubbert / greenhouse social and ecosystemic collapse. It does not make sense to worry about underpopulation just because people choose to have 1 or 2 babies instead of 6 or 7. Sex feels good and most people like children. As long as the biosphere can support us, we’ll stick around.



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Lindsey Abelard

posted March 31, 2010 at 2:49 pm


I can assure you that Stewart Brand is not pro-corporation. He does view corporations as necessary to certain capital-intensive activities, like building nuclear power plants. However, he is definitely anti-corporatist with his promotion of DIY biotechnology and open source biology. Brand is still as much of a proponent of decentralization of power and economics as he was in the late 60’s.



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the stupid Chris

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:11 pm


For this bunch, growth is the most important thing – be it population, the size of the internet, the markets, whatever, the bigger the better.
I think you’ve fundamentally misunderstood Brand. Won’t speak for Wired which was “tired” by its third year. But having read many of Brand’s works I find him to be more thoughtful and less of a booster than you claim.



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Charles Cosimano

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:14 pm


It doesn’t matter. People are not going to decide whether or not to have children on the basis of anything other than their personal desires. The environment is not even on the radar.



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BobSF

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:21 pm


And then you start to get a nation that looks like Florida.
If Florida is an example of environmental degradation (and it is), it’s an example of how development and increasing populations destroy the natural infrastructure.
Weird example.
If “mildly pro-natal” means support for population replacement plus a small growth increment, all that means is eventual overpopulation. Japan’s problem isn’t the decrease in population, it’s the rapidity of the decrease.



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Hector

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:46 pm


Really?
“The bad news is population is continuing to increase, and the last doubling is going from a large number to a doubly large number. The good news is it’s leveling off. And then the bad news is maybe it’s leveling off too fast and headed down in a destructive way in certain parts of the world.”
That hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of high birth rates to me. Mr. Brand is advocating that population not decrease too fast, but he’s certainly not advocating that everyone have a family of four kids. The world population is still growing, and Mr. Brand views that as a bad thing.
Re: Japan’s problem isn’t the decrease in population, it’s the rapidity of the decrease.
Good point- I think that most countries would be better off if they had birth rates around or slightly below replacement, but clearly Japan and Italy and some other countries have birth rates that are too low, which destabilises the society and culture (and needless to say, is bad for the personal and spiritual growth of many of those childless couples). That said, I certainly don’t want every country to have the birth rates of, say, most of sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East- and countries with very high birth rates should strive to lower them.
Lastly, I’m not entirely sure what qualifications Mr. Brand has, more than me or Rod, to speak to this issue. As far as I can tell he’s a writer and social thinker- his expertise isn’t in the fields of ecology, zoology, botany, forestry, agronomy, fisheries management, or any of the other fields that deal with human impacts on the natural world. If we are going to look for expert testimony about whether overpopulation is a threat, we would do better to ask some actual scientists.



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Jon

posted March 31, 2010 at 7:22 pm


I don’t think you can attribute Japan’s current (and long-running) economic woes to demography. If there were too few workers we would see low unemployment there and inflationary pressure from increasing wages. Instead Japan has been deflationary for years, and its labor markets are anything but tight.
Also, at a given point in time, a large number of dependent children are (economically) no different from a large number of dependent retirees. Both are consummers who produce nothing, though at least some significant fraction of the retirees have capital assets they contribute. Somehow we got through the baby-boom without economic collapse, I suspect we’ll be able to see those same boomers off this mortal coil in the next few decades without too much woe.



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stefanie

posted March 31, 2010 at 7:24 pm


A skewed-age population is a *temporary* situation. After the “boom” dies off, you have a small population having a small(er) number of children. Also, at least some of that younger generation will inherit a sizable amt. of wealth from that passing generation.
It’s also a fallacy to compare Japan 20 years ago to today. Japan has seriously and artificially *limited* opportunities for workers. For instance, many who didn’t go to “top name” universities get frozen out of professional/career tracks, including those who go to universities overseas. One reason South Korea has a more vibrant economy than Japan’s is because the South Koreans don’t have that prejudice against professionals being educated abroad. For another, the Japanese have a bad track record on sex discrimination in employment, and keep many married women out of the workforce. So if the Japanese have a labor shortage, it isn’t just b/c of their age demographics; it’s because they seriously limit who can work and where.
It’s also a myth that older people are inevitably “dependent.” People who keep in good health (physical, mental, emotional) can probably work way longer than we expect, especially if their jobs are not brutally physically taxing. Many people in the USA are *at present* avoiding retirement because of the economy. Perhaps the whole notion of “retirement” will become obsolete.
Also, a modern economy simply does not need that many workers (esp. once the “boom” dies off.) Factories can turn out tens of thousands of widgets per hour with under two dozen employees. Like it or not, automation is the future. About 1% of the population is engaged in agriculture, and we have such a surplus of “junk” food like corn and refined (white) flour that we ship it all over the world. And there are many younger, educated workers in countries like China and India who are more than willing to work as outsource workers, even now.



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Heritage Hills

posted March 31, 2010 at 10:12 pm


Sounds like Stewart Brand agrees with God: “Be fruitful and multiply.” God knows a thing or two (or three or four or five…) about how the world best works. We ought to listen to him more :-)



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David

posted April 1, 2010 at 3:54 am


More from Brand here http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/652828ec-fbe0-11de-9c29-00144feab49a.html – which should dispel the idea that he’s any kind of simple corporatist.



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Jon

posted April 1, 2010 at 6:26 am


Re: Sounds like Stewart Brand agrees with God: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Be fruitful and multiply was said to Adam and Eve. It’s not a general commandment to everyone. One way not to interpret Scrpture is not to take every specific thing as a generality.



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aaron

posted April 1, 2010 at 9:06 am


On a side note: for all the extreme environmentalists advocating for a severely reduced population, I wonder how many also support strong governmental safety net programs like social security, medicare, and single-payer health insurance?



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Pauli

posted April 1, 2010 at 9:07 am


I heard the other day that under-population is causing the sewers to work improperly — not enough waste to flow well — in some Euro countries (Germany? Can’t remember…) So it is necessitating huge expensive projects to narrow the sewer pipes. Good times, sounds like.



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Pauli

posted April 1, 2010 at 9:08 am


“Be fruitful and multiply was said to Adam and Eve.”
What about Adam and Steve? (Sorry, counldn’t resist….)



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Artie

posted April 1, 2010 at 9:25 am


For those wanting more on Stewart Brand, I recommend Fred Turner’s (no relation to me or UT Dallas) book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.” Brand has forever linked himself with techno-utopianism, the unrestrained growth of the internet, with decentralized, unregulated electronic commerce, exactly what brought about high-frequency trading, an explosion of electronic porn and a host of other social ills. On top of it all, the internet and its infrastructure grows as if it has indeed taken “be fruitful and multiply” quite literally. It now consumes 5% or more of all electricity and is growing into the next generation of internet protocols which allot millions of IP address per human on the planet, enough to embed those microprocessors into all 9 billion + of our brains, as Ray Kurzweil and other of Brand’s Wired buddies have promoted. Landfills are choking with toxic electronic waste and minds atrophy on a diet of electronic media garbage.



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the stupid Chris

posted April 1, 2010 at 10:43 am


Brand has forever linked himself with techno-utopianism, the unrestrained growth of the internet, with decentralized, unregulated electronic commerce, exactly what brought about high-frequency trading, an explosion of electronic porn and a host of other social ills.
I find it interesting that you don’t have the same criticism of the Interstate Highway System, rural electrification or satellite telephone and television.



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Artie

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:14 am


“I find it interesting that you don’t have the same criticism of the Interstate Highway System, rural electrification or satellite telephone and television.”
There’s only so much time, and so much space in the comment boxes, and more importantly, the same criticism does not apply. So far, the highway system’s only real shortcoming is the dependence it creates for fossil fuel. The internet is truly unique in its ability to grow, enslave and wreak havoc.



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Anderson

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:46 am


Sounds like Stewart Brand agrees with God: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
The complete command is “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” One could make the case that we already have filled and subdued the earth.



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Your Name

posted April 4, 2010 at 2:13 pm


The idea that this Earth is underpopulated is the stupidest, amerikan-centric idea I’ve read about today. Only the capitalist need more slaves; the Earth can’t sustain what humans already exist.



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MissAnnieArchy

posted April 4, 2010 at 2:14 pm


The idea that this Earth is underpopulated is the stupidest, amerikan-centric idea I’ve read about today. Only the capitalist need more slaves; the Earth can’t sustain what humans already exist.



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